By Noel Vera
AMAZING how under certain circumstances critics’ reactions are so ridiculously uniform, so hilariously predictable down to specific complaints on specific titles. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016) is the acknowledged sequel to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), so naturally mainstream reviewers compare the former to the latter, almost always unfavorably; Ang Lee is an award-winning director, so folks rhapsodize about his poetic sensibility, elegance subtlety (often to the sequel’s disadvantage); Lee did not direct the sequel (or turned down the offer) and the job went instead to the first film’s action choreographer, so of course they pooh-poohed the action as being more vulgar, less lyrically staged and shot.
It helps I think to be a fan of the cinema with at least passing familiarity, instead of a clueless gwai lo (foreigner) sampling the picture only because it’s the follow-up (translated: shameless cash grab) to a Best Picture nominee. The original Crouching Tiger was in my book one of the biggest swindles in recent years, a movie that took everything fun about the genre — the outrageous martial arts choreography, the seesawing emotional tone (from low slapstick to high tragedy and back), the no-nonsense fast-paced filmmaking — and ground it all down via emery board to a tonier more Oscar-worthy gleam.
For the sequel they got at least one thing right: an authentic wuxia filmmaker at the helm. Yuen Woo Ping is known the world over for creating fight sequences in the first Crouching, The Matrix, and the Kill Bill films, but should really be as well known (if there’s any justice in the world) for directing Iron Monkey, The Magnificent Butcher, and Drunken Master, among others.
What Yuen brings is what the original badly needed, a jolt of energy — hence the fight sequences which, yes, are more briskly edited than Lee’s but actually lose little in spatial coherence. Unshackled by good taste, Yuen is able to introduce a few memorable touches: an after-hours fight where both combatants are uninvited guests and the battle occurs (despite tottering vases and toppling jars) in dark near-total silence; another on a frozen lake where the combatants slip and slide their deadly way towards, past, and away from each other (modeled I’m guessing on a sequence in Once Upon a Time in China 3, where Jet Li had to fend off spike-booted attackers on a well-oiled floor). There’s even a training sequence where Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) attempts to jab a stick through a holed coin — inspired if I’m not mistaken by something similar scene in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
If the action in Crouching 2 looks familiar why that’s a common — time-honored, almost — practice in Hong Kong action cinema to steal; the real trick is to somehow make the familiar fresh again, or at least fairly distinguishable from its source. Lee himself (charges of “originality” notwithstanding) is not above borrowing from his betters: a battle set in an inn (inspired by King Hu’s Come Drink With Me); another in a bamboo forest, oft praised as the height of poetic imagination in wuxia cinema (though in my book nowhere near as poetic or imaginative — or viciously executed — as Hu’s in A Touch of Zen).
Oh I wouldn’t call Crouching 2 a great film, not even a great example of the genre — accusations of using non-Chinese landscapes are justified (the film was shot in New Zealand) and the script is a clunky retread of the earlier pic’s dramatic highlights.
In response to the first charge I’d like to point out that Chinese filmmakers have shot in Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, even the United States, and have so far escaped criticism (to be fair, none of them, as far as I can recall, have ever tried to pass off another country for China). In response to the second, yes, you see the writer wielding a shoehorn (Shu Lien — the still magnificent Michelle Yeoh — is not a major character in the book). But another addition — Meng Sizhao, played by the still physically impressive Donnie Yen — feels like an interpolation based on a reading of Wang Du Lu’s pentalogy: an interesting twist found not in the novels but suggested by them, adding an element of honor-driven duplicity so heroic it almost seems perverse, and very much in line with the novels’ themes (was scriptwriter John Fusco aware of what he was doing? Does he even care?).
Other details: assembling a corps of warriors from different provinces (Flying Blade of Shantung; Thunder Fist Chan of Zhejiang; Silver Dart Shi of Fuzhao; Turtle Ma of the local tavern) is a sequence straight out of The Avengers (and who’s to say the assembly in Whedon’s epic wasn’t inspired by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai?); the climactic melee at the tower of warlord Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee) has the chaotic exuberance of the season finale of Game of Thrones. Chinese cinema corrupted by Western influence? Possibly, but I submit it’s also as much Western culture appropriated and transformed by Chinese cinema — that the influence is not necessarily unilateral or debilitating.
The most enjoyable Hong Kong action films — mind you I didn’t say “best” or “most coherent” — have that overstuffed everything-goes feeling most Western directors wouldn’t have the balls to even try attempt. Ang Lee is too Westernized, too inhibited, too uninventive a filmmaker to even try; Yuen Woo Ping, thank goodness, has no time for such nonsense.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is now out on Netflix.